Thursday, July 05, 2012

Photography as Puzzle Solving

There's lots of reasons to be a photographer, the need to create, the enjoyment of being outdoors (and now an excuse to be there instead of at home with the job jar), the love of the fine image and so on.

I wonder though if an important reason doesn't have more to do with the challenge of solving puzzles. In the old days this could be the challenge of producing good images from a wet darkroom - and perhaps explains the obsession of many with ultimate quality, finest grain, best developers etc.  These days with the technical aspects of photography easier, the puzzle is more in the finding and framing of the fine image.

This starts with choosing the subject in general terms, planning where to go and when, and then finding the scene and deciding what you are going to do with it, and then moving into a position that best helps you tell your story or make your point or simply show what you are most interested in about the subject in the best way possible such that the viewer can best appreciate what interested you.

This business of puzzle solving perhaps explains the phenomenon of the lone worker who doesn't share his work, doesn't even put it on the wall, and files away the images. The hunt, the solving of the puzzle is the quest, not the actual final image.

Yes, but so what - how does thinking of photography as puzzle solving help me make better photographs, or enjoy my craft more?

Well, for a start, it may suggest that subject matter isn't nearly as important as you thought. Sure you do landscapes, because that's what you have always done, but if the chase is the thing, the puzzle solving the satisfaction, then might not just about any subject provide the same thrills and satisfactions.  Instead of agonizing over whether photographing someone else's creation is valid, just go out and photograph architecture or even sculpture for the challenge and let the final print be a validation of that challenge successfully met.

I've just signed up for a workshop on photographing cowboys - about as far away from my usual subject matter as one could get (I'm guessing I won't need my tripod). I have no special interest in cowboys but think the challenge will be satisfying - making decisions on the fly, in a split second, and being able to predict the action so as to be in the right place ad the right time. So this is a new puzzle for me to solve.

One can appreciate the puzzle solving involved in photographing, for example a particular sport, even though one has no special interest in that sport - either watching or participating, because we like solving the puzzle of getting the best images.

The world has no use for any more cute cat pictures, but truth is getting good cat pictures can be extremely challenging and success in doing so very satisfying and does it really matter if the world doesn't beat a path to your door to appreciate your images.

This puzzle solving tends to take away from the feeling that we must produce images that others appreciate and frees us to work on what we want or find satisfying.

Perhaps this explains the fascination with Holga cameras and home made lenses and limiting oneself to a single lens or only black and white or learning to solve the puzzle of effective use of the Lensbaby.

Socrates referred to the unexamined life as being 'not worth living' which is perhaps a tad harsh, yet understanding the motives behind what we do can be illuminating (sorry).

As a physician, I work with people who have ADHD, and while helping them with the right combination of medications is satisfying, sometimes the most useful thing I can do is help explain why the patient makes the choices they do - the education path, the job, or even who they are attracted to. That 'Ahah' moment helps them make future decisions.

Why do you photograph?


TJ said...

Great article. Yes. In fact I see a lot of puzzle solving aspects when I try to go out or plan to take a certain shot... like HDR panoramas at night and the challenge of cleaning the noise later, or like the time when I decided and planned to take a low-level panorama in a narrow space like my bathroom which took hours of work (and guys kept asking me what the hell your point is from all this fuss?). Just lately, I've taken a panorama in another narrow place: my work's bathroom (and the images are posted in my latest blog post).

Before coming here and reading this article, I was out in this dusty weather we have here and I took my camera and tripod... why? I don't know. I said to myself "you have to find something". Went out there, found something that I thought it's useful and now I'm working on it. Now the challenge is to force this ordinary abstract shot into something interesting a bit, either by composition or colors - or both if I was lucky enough.
Ironically though, despite all the challenges I could think of and try to do, I've never had the appetite nor thought of working with models and portrait photography. Just thinking about it makes me feel dull and as something that is just completely NOT interesting at all and I can't force myself to work with it. I think this is one feeling I can't challenge.

By the way, since you work with ADHD patients; how would you recognize someone having ADHD (or Adult ADHD)? Must it be done with medical examination? Also, what's the difference between ADHD and Adult ADHD? ... you know for my lack of focus specially on reading or watching stuff for a long time, sometimes I do doubt myself being affected by a spectrum of such things, but I've never done a check on that!

Tim said...

Funnily enough, I tend to think of the landscape "chase" as more of a contrivance than a puzzle - at least at the macroscopic level of choosing what end of what day to go where because the OS map says it'll look good. To a large degree, it detracts from the element of luck - "yes I *can* do this", rather like shooting fish in a barrel.

Then you arrive somewhere, the light's got potential... so the scene's sorted and it's up to you where to park the tripod based on minute adjustments to the contents of the viewfinder/LCD.

And so it becomes a game of two halves, regardless of genre: the subject on one side of the lens and the box that frames what it sees on the other.